Performance management: is the issue with them, or you?

Wednesday 18 September 2019
If you’re concerned about an employee’s performance, it may be time for performance management. Here are some proven techniques for making the process work
A pocket watch in the palm of someone's hand

There’s no ‘right’ approach to performance management. The process needs to fit the employee’s personality type and role as as much as your organisational strategy. Frank but supportive conversations that include ongoing feedback are the core of effective performance management. Stuart Hearn, CEO of Clear Review, says that performance management needn’t be a negative action: “Why should performance management be seen as a corrective measure? It’s not a punishment; it’s an essential development tool.” Framing performance management as a constructive period of change can help to motivate your employees.


Before you can fix poor performance, you need to understand its cause. Incorrect diagnoses can lead to problems later on, so it’s crucial to determine where the problem stems from.


  • Is it a lack of ability, or low motivation?
  • Is the person a poor fit for the job?
  • Do they lack the essential skills?
  • Are they just misunderstanding expectations?

There’s often a mismatch between what managers and employees think is important, so it’s critical to consider your own role in the problem and not just focus on what the underperformer needs to do. Think about the changes you can also make, as “performance should be a priority for everyone, not just the strugglers. Managers can work with their team members to ensure that everyone benefits and grows,” says Stuart Hearn.


It's important that you and the employee agree on a plan for improving performance. This should include actions points alongside the dates by which goals should be achieved. To begin with, “keep it light and purely desk-based,” says Mark Bracknall, director of Theo James recruitment. “This could include small and short KPIs – but goals should always be realistic and designed to improve abilities and skills. Unattainable objectives are demoralising and should be avoided.”

Regularly monitor their progress — that may seem obvious, but unfortunately, many managers fail to follow up, and lack of communication is likely to cause the problems to repeat themselves. Set up times and dates in the future to check progress, so you’re not catching the employee off guard and the meetings can be spaced out. It may be helpful to ask the employee if he has someone he’d like to enlist in the effort for support. However, it’s important to keep what’s happening confidential — while also reassuring others that you’re handling the problem.


Consider first the resources provided to do the job and ask employees if they have what they need to perform well and meet expectations. This will signal to your team that you're interested in their perspective and are willing to make changes. “Actions plans should be bespoke to the individual,” says Bracknall, “you should be setting goals and performance plans which challenge the individual but are capable of being met.”

Together, explore whether they have the abilities required for the full scope of their role; given the rapid evolution of technology, it's easy for people's skills to become outdated. If these first two measures aren't sufficient, consider refitting the job to the person and altering their duties – there may be parts of the job that can be reassigned. Analyse the individual components of the work and try out different combinations of tasks and abilities – though that might involve rearranging the jobs of other people, too. If that doesn’t turn things around, look at reassigning the employee in question into a role that requires less responsibility, technical knowledge, or interpersonal skills, but is still useful to the company.


Sometimes there is no alternative but to terminate the person’s position in the organisation; without consequences for persistent failure, accountability is meaningless. “Firing an employee is one of the toughest and most unpleasant things you’ll have to do as a manager, but allowing poor performers to remain in their post sends the message that poor performance is tolerated and accepted by everyone else,” says author and management consultant Bruce Tulgan.

But even the most successful business people admit to finding it difficult to fire someone. The entrepreneur Richard Branson deals with the situation by having an honest and open talk with the poor performer; seeing if there are other areas of the business where they can perform better; and, if there are no alternative solutions, finally making the tough decision to let them go.

Stuart Hearn, however, doesn’t think that performance management should be limited to only those struggling at work: “If the idea is to help an employee develop, grow and achieve higher standards, wouldn't you want to do that with everybody rather than just your poor performers? Performance should be a priority for everyone, not just the strugglers.” He recommends having “frank, future-focused conversations” across the entire team, to make sure that everyone feels supported and is striving to be their best.

Developing people and their capability is a key measure of your interpersonal excellence, according to CMI’s Professional Standards and Competency Framework. Making tough decisions is an indicator of your personal effectiveness.

Find out how CMI can help boost your skill set by browsing our performance management content, found on ManagementDirect.

Want to bring out the best in your people? Check out our article on the very latest management thinking.

Image: Unsplash